Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts?

Q. Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts regardless of whether they know Scripture or have access to it? Paul wrote to the Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But he also wrote that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they . . . show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” Does that mean we are not only cognizant of the existence of God, but also without excuse concerning obeying His laws?

Does nature speak not just of a Creator, but of that Creator’s intentions for human life? (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

God did say through Jeremiah, in a passage later quoted in the letter to the Hebrews, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” But this promise was made specifically to those who would become part of the new covenant by trusting in Jesus. And in context, it refers to people not just knowing God’s laws, but obeying them willingly and eagerly, because they are being transformed within by the Holy Spirit.

The comment you quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the Gentiles keeping the law is actually talking about something different. It says literally in Greek that the work of the law is written on their hearts—not the specific requirements of the law, but what it looks like to “do” (live by) the law. Paul talks immediately afterwards about the conscience bearing witness along with the heart, i.e. at the same time—not “also” or “in addition,” as many translations have it. I therefore think these two versions capture his meaning pretty well:

“The conscience is like a law written in the human heart.” (CEV)

“In their hearts they know what is right and wrong, the same as the law commands, and their consciences agree.” (ERV)

Similarly, when Paul writes just before this that at times Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” he’s using a phrase that’s synonymous with “conscience.”

The whole point of Paul’s argument here is to respond to the claim of the  church in Rome, to which he’s writing, that the Jews have a greater right to the gospel. (“To the Jew first” seems to have been their motto.) Paul is working to transform this claim into a recognition that Jews and Gentiles have an equal need for the gospel. (“To the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”)

And so, he argues, the Jews have the law, but they haven’t kept it; the Gentiles have conscience, but they haven’t followed that, either. (Most of the time, that is; they are capable of following it). Both groups have failed to follow the means of moral guidance that God has given them, and as a result, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but all can and must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

So in this statement about the Gentiles, Paul is basically saying that everybody has a conscience that enables them generally to know right from wrong in their hearts. If they don’t follow their conscience, they can’t plead that they didn’t know any better. They need to admit that they’ve done wrong and come to God for forgiveness and justification by grace.

In short, while everybody may not have God’s actual moral laws innately stamped on their hearts, the Bible does say here that everybody has a conscience. However, we should recognize that a given person’s conscience, and thus their sense of right and wrong, will be influenced by their own family, society, and culture. Nobody starts out with a “blank slate,” the conscience they would have simply by understanding about God through the creation.

In addition, unfortunately, it’s possible to disregard or resist our conscience to the point where it becomes hardened and is no longer a reliable source of moral guidance. As Paul puts it in a vivid phrase in his first letter to Timothy, the conscience then becomes “seared as with a hot iron.” This frightening possibility should make us all eager to maintain a tender conscience before God!

Is it too late for my loved one who has passed away?

Q. If God’s will is for us all to be in heaven and to have the full assurance of our salvation, why did He not tell me how to tell my loved one before she died how to have that? I could not tell her because I myself do not have that. The Bible says, “If it’s God’s will,” and if I know nothing else, I know that is His will. But it’s too late now because my loved one died and the Bible says a person must accept Jesus Christ as their Savior while ALIVE.

First, please accept my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your loved one. And I feel that I can add, in all sincerity, “may she rest in peace,” because as I explain in this post and in this post, as a biblical scholar, I believe there are some Scriptural grounds to believe that people may have some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death. For example, Paul included “death” as one the things that cannot separate us from the love of God as he described those things in Romans. It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.

I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter. But I’d encourage you to think, precisely because there are these different understandings, that maybe things are not as hopeless for your loved one as they appear to you right now. And I hope that you will meet Jesus as your own Savior, Lord, and friend on this earth, and find assurance of salvation for yourself. I truly hope that there’s someone in your life who radiates the love of Christ. If you can recognize a person like that, please ask them to explain more about this to you. God bless you.

Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be named Emmanuel?

Q. In Isaiah, the Messiah’s name is Emmanuel. Why did Gabriel say to call the baby Jesus?

“The Annunciation” (detail), Bartolomé Murillo, 1665-1660. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announces that she’s going to give birth to the Messiah, and tells her to name the baby Jesus.

This is a bit of a puzzle, particularly since the Bible calls direct attention to the difference in names.

According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” In other words, he will be the Messiah.

According to Matthew, an “angel of the Lord” also appeared to Joseph and told him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” The angel refers to Joseph as “son of David” to show that he’s in the royal line of Judah and that as his legal (though not biological) son, Jesus will be in that line as well and so can be the Messiah.

But Matthew then adds, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.'” So how could the prophesy have been fulfilled that said a virgin would bear a son named Emmanuel if the Virgin Mary instead named her son Jesus?

The issue depends on what it means for a Scripture to be “fulfilled.” Let me quote here from another post on this blog that addresses that specific question:

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

So, to summarize, instead of being named Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” Jesus actually is “God with us.” That’s the deeper meaning of the earlier statement that can be recognized as God carries out the plans he announced.

And the name “Jesus” itself is not without significance. Mary and Joseph were told to choose this name precisely because of its significance. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, or more specifically Yehoshua, which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” That’s why the angel said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

So Jesus is “God with us,” as the prophetic name Emmanuel indicates, and he does save us from our sins, as his actual proper name describes.

Why does Peter put on his tunic to swim to shore?

Q. What does it mean when Jesus comes to the boat and finds Peter naked? I don’t understand why we need to know that, but it’s in the Bible so I expect Jesus had reason to tell us.

I believe the passage you’re referring to is the one at the end of the gospel of John in which the disciples go fishing after Jesus’ resurrection. They fish all night and catch nothing, but in the morning Jesus appears on the shore and tells them where to throw their net. The gospel then says:

So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

For many of us, when we read this passage and hear that Peter was naked in the boat, our reaction is, “TMI.” (Too much information. We don’t need to know that.)

But the first thing I’d say in response to your question is that Peter was almost certainly not completely naked. The Greek word that’s used here is gymnos. While it often means “naked,” its general meaning is “lacking clothes,” so we have to determine its specific meaning from the context.

For example, James asks in his epistle, “If a brother or sister is gymnos and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” While some English versions translate the term gymnos as “naked” there, James’ meaning seems to be instead that the brother or sister has not enough clothing and not enough food, and that genuine faith with express itself by providing for such a person. And so various other versions translate the term as “poorly clad,” “needing clothes,” “lacking adequate clothing,” etc.

In the same way, the context in the gospel of John suggests that Peter was not literally naked, as that is not how a fishermen would dress (or not dress) for work. Rather, as other English versions suggest, he was “stripped to the waist” or “stripped for work” or “lightly clad” or “had taken off some clothes to work.” The Voice Bible says, “He threw on his shirt (which he would take off while he was working).”

But this still doesn’t answer your question of why the Bible would give us these details about how Peter was dressed for work, and tell us that he put his outer tunic back on before he swam to shore to see Jesus. John is very careful about what details he includes in his gospel and there is usually some thematic or theological significance behind each one. (One of my favorites is when John says that the woman at the well left behind her water jar when she went to tell the other people of her village about Jesus. This detail has symbolic significance: She didn’t need the jar any more because she’d found living water!)

I haven’t found other interpreters discussing the particular detail of Peter’s tunic, but let me offer some reflections of my own about it. I do think it’s significant that three other scenes of taking a garment off or putting one on lead up to this scene at the end of the gospel. Even though different words for the specific “garment” in view are sometimes used in the earlier scenes, I think there’s still significant thematic continuity.

– At the Last Supper, Jesus lays aside his outer garment in order to dress as a servant would as he washes the disciples’ feet.

– When Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the soldiers put a purple robe on him, mocking his claim to be the “King of the Jews.”

– At the cross, as the soldiers are dividing up Jesus’ clothing, they don’t want to rip his tunic into pieces, so they cast lots for it. (In this case, the term for the garment is the same as in the fishing scene.)

Each of these details reveals something about Jesus’ identity. He has come to earth in the role of a servant; nevertheless, he really is a king—the soldiers’ mocking gesture is truer than they know; his death fulfills what Scripture says about God’s redemptive plans, so it’s actually a defeat for his enemies and a victory for God.

I’d argue that Peter putting his tunic back on also reveals something about his identity at that point. I think it symbolizes how he isn’t yet ready to lay aside his “garments” (symbolizing his role and authority) and become a servant as Jesus did. But as Peter speaks with Jesus on the seashore, and Jesus offers him the opportunity to affirm his love for him three times, undoing his threefold denial, Jesus also offers him the role of a servant who will “tend his sheep” and ultimately give his life for them, too. And Peter actually did this: John says that Jesus was showing Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God.

Particularly since Jesus’ act of laying aside his garments stands out as something we wouldn’t expect at a banquet, and Peter’s act of putting on his tunic stands out as something we wouldn’t expect of someone who was just about to dive into the sea and swim, I think we are supposed to associate the two scenes and understand that Peter was just about to learn something necessary about servanthood and embrace that role.

I hope these reflections on your question are helpful.

One person responded to this post by observing that Jesus says to Peter on the shore, “When you were young, you put on your own clothes and went about wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you up and take you where you don’t want to go.” This suggests that Peter putting on his tunic is indeed being contrasted symbolically with the way of suffering and sacrifice that Jesus invites him to follow.

“The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish,” Duccio, 14th Century. Note that the artist identifies Peter symbolically by having him walk on the water, even though that actually happened in an earlier episode in the gospels. He has already put his tunic back on.

 

How can I show my friends that I’m not a wacko just because I’m a Christian?

Q. How do we handle the tension that comes from being truly and deeply different as Christians while simultaneously wanting to reach a culture that ​is​ ​easily put off by “strange” religious behavior and especially ​of​​ being “converted” to ​something​? ​Since religious believers are often portrayed as complete wackos, it would seem that showing people how normal most of us are would be a good step. But it makes me wonder how far is too far when it comes to trying to appear “normal.” ​

To what degree one should bring up faith or try to steer conversations in that direction in personal relationships? Is it more important to focus on living such an attractive life that people inevitably “want what we have” and ask us about our faith? Or is that even realistic?

Along the same lines, to what degree should Christians emphasize that they are “just normal people” and not “crazy cult followers”? For example, say that after work some coworkers invite you to go to a local bar for some drinks. Obviously some personal judgement is called for (how shady is this bar?), but would it be a better approach to go with the “hey, I want these people to know that Christians are normal too” approach and go grab a drink, or would it be better to make a point of emphasizing that as a Christian you don’t really feel comfortable drinking at a bar (and thereby potentially get tuned out by them in the future)?

Your question is very pertinent to the contemporary cultural and religious landscape. I recently saw a college chaplain quoted to this effect: “Given their distrust of authorities and institutions, millennials are seeking out extended experiences and real, authentic spiritual relationships before they will commit to a world view or ideology.”

In other words, nobody these days is going to be “converted” to a faith or religion simply because somebody talks to them about it. They will need to watch your experiences over a period of time first and come to some judgment about whether they agree God is in these experiences as you say. They will also need to validate the genuine quality of your relationships with them and with others. So this is not a matter of a brief “gospel presentation” over lunch or on a bus. It’s a matter of living out your life with credibility and authenticity over time, with people watching.

The practical questions you ask suggest some very good illustrations of this. If you go into a conversation with somebody not really wanting to talk about what they want to talk about, but instead looking for a chance to bring up your faith, that’s fake. Don’t do that. On the other hand, if faith would come up naturally, but you don’t mention it because you think your friend might consider you a “wacko,” that’s also fake. You’re not being yourself.

For example, suppose on a Monday somebody at work asks, “So what did you do this weekend?” If, among other things, you went to church, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning that, and even describing something interesting or inspiring that happened there. (And then you ask, “And what did you do this weekend?”)

As for going to a bar with co-workers, for me personally the question really would be, “How shady is this bar?” If the place is basically a restaurant that happens to serve beer, I wouldn’t have a problem with going there and hanging out with people from work. (Hopefully they have a good selection of draft beers on tap!) On the other hand, if the place is a near-criminal enterprise, a haven of immoral, illegal, and exploitive activities, I’d tell my co-workers, “I’d love to grab a drink with you, but I find that place kind of sketchy. Could we go to such-and-such a place instead?”

(I recognize that whether to drink alcohol at all is one of those questions about which Christians each need to develop their own convictions and be “fully convinced in their own minds.” But even if you abstain from liquor, you could still go out with your friends and order a non-alcoholic drink. If anyone asks or seems like they’re wondering, you can just explain naturally, “I don’t drink alcohol.” Many people abstain for lots of different reasons and these days it should be “no big deal.” However, if you’re a recovering alcoholic and being in a bar would be too great a temptation, then it wouldn’t be wise to go. Additionally, if the whole purpose of the outing is not to be with friends, but to get drunk, then that’s not something it would be valuable to be a part of.)

Let me stress, however, that the point of going out for a drink with co-workers is not to demonstrate to them that Christians are normal people and not crazy cult followers. The point is to go out for a drink with co-workers. In other words, your intentions need to be sincere and authentic. You can’t have a “hidden agenda.” Otherwise, you’re not really demonstrating a quality of life that others might recognize and want to find out more about.

And this brings me to your final specific question: Yes, I do think it’s realistic to believe and expect that modeling the new life God is creating inside you will make that same life attractive to others. One of my favorite stories in the gospels is about Zaccheus. To say that everybody in Jericho wanted him to repent would be an understatement. As a tax collector, he was collaborating with the Romans and enriching himself by extorting money from everyone else. All Jesus said to him was, “I want to have dinner with you.” But at that dinner, Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He knew Jesus was extending an unconditional welcome to him, he wanted to accept that welcome (he’d already braved a crowd that was likely hostile just to see Jesus), but he also recognized that a life change came with accepting the welcome.

I think these are actually exciting times for us to live in. We can speak about our faith without worrying about offending people, so long as we do so freely, openly, and naturally, because these days people are supposed to accept and respect where other people are coming from. But we also need to recognize that it’s the quality of our lives and relationships that will ultimately make that faith credible to others. And that’s a good challenge for us to embrace. As Jesus said, people have to recognize us as his followers by the fruits of our lives.

 

Is Jesus insulting the Canaanite woman by calling her a “dog”?

Q. I read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman the other day and I have no idea what Jesus is talking about in the parable when he references crumbs and dogs eating the crumbs. Can you shed some light on this passage?

“The Woman of Canaan” by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1670s

This story is confusing and sometimes upsetting to readers of the gospels because it appears that Jesus is not only rebuffing someone who comes to him for help, he’s actually insulting her in the process.

A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to deliver her daughter, who’s suffering at the hands of a demon, but he won’t even speak to her. When his disciples urge him to help, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The woman is a non-Israelite.) And when she appeals to Jesus personally, he responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

So Jesus seems to have a very callous and insulting attitude. However, I think something different is actually going on here.

This was an oral culture whose ways were embodied in popular sayings. These were often cited in support of a particular course of action. When two people had different courses in mind, they would pit different sayings against each other until one person had to admit, “Okay, you’ve got me there.”

This kind of thing can happen in our own culture. For example, two friends might visit a new part of town on a weekend, looking for a restaurant where they can have dinner. The first place they consider says it can seat them immediately. One of them might say, “Maybe we should eat here. After all, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'” But if the other thinks there could be a better restaurant down the street that would be worth the wait, he might reply, “Yes, but ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.'”

Similarly, I think Jesus is actually quoting a popular saying to the woman: “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This saying probably had a general application meaning something like, “Don’t use something expensive or valuable for a common purpose.” Jesus is applying it to the mandate he has, during his limited time on earth, to concentrate his efforts on ministry to the people of Israel, as their Messiah. (After his resurrection, his message will spread to all the people of the world from that starting point.)

The woman, however, comes up with what I think is an original saying of her own in response: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds, in effect, “You’ve got me there,” and he heals her daughter.

But this was not merely a battle of wits that the woman won by her cleverness and quick thinking. Rather, I believe Jesus evaluated every situation he encountered in order to discern how God might be at work in it. In the gospel of John he’s quoted as saying, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So Jesus was always on the lookout for when his Father might be doing something that he could join in with.

I believe, for example, that when his mother Mary came to him at the wedding in Cana and told him that the hosts had run out of wine, while Jesus thought initially that the time hadn’t come yet for him to do “signs” in public, he ultimately recognized that Mary’s persistent and trusting faith was an indication that God was at work in the situation. And so he did his first miracle there, turning water into wine.

I believe that Jesus similarly recognized the Canaanite woman’s bold request and audacious persistence as indications that God was giving her the faith to believe her daughter could be delivered if she sought help from Jesus. It was in response to that recognition, inspired by the woman’s reply to his challenge, that Jesus acted to heal the daughter, giving an advance glimpse of how his influence would soon extend beyond the borders of Israel.

 

Why does Peter call Jesus a “living stone” and his followers “living stones”?

Q. Peter writes in his first letter, “As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” What is a “living stone”? What does that mean?

The references to Jesus as a living stone, and to us his followers as living stones, actually look forward to the quotation from Isaiah that Peter offers shortly afterwards. In the original context in Isaiah, the “cornerstone” is a figure for justice. The correct lines for a stone building (i.e. the placement of all the other blocks) were all derived from a perfectly squared-off cornerstone that was laid down first. In the same way, God says, He will establish justice so that all of the Judeans can know whether their actions are “within the lines” or not. (“I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.”)

As often happens when New Testament authors see a Messianic meaning in an Old Testament prophecy, Peter is “escalating” the language so that the cornerstone (justice) becomes personified in Jesus. That’s what “living” means: An abstraction, justice, is now embodied in a person, Jesus the Messiah. He is, in effect, the “first block laid down,” and we who are “being built into a spiritual house” (that is, into a new kind of temple, as other New Testament writers also say) need to take our bearings and find our placement from Jesus. Not in a physical sense, but in the sense of moral purpose: “How can my life and actions fit in with what God has already started doing in the world through Jesus?”

We today probably aren’t very familiar with the approach to construction that involves first laying down a cornerstone. So let me offer a modern analogy. When a baseball field is laid out, the first thing put down is home plate. The foul lines are drawn out from the back of it. And those foul lines tell you whether a batted ball is “in” or “out.” The life, teachings, and example of Jesus establish the lines in our lives of what’s “in” and “out,” not just morally, but also in keeping with God’s expanding purposes in the world. He is, in effect, a “living home plate,” and we are a “living infield” and a “living outfield.”